FAW Chicago, IL Est. 1922
FAW Book Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere
By Celeste Ng

Hardcover 352 pages, Penguin Press (September 2017)

Reviewed by Vivian Mortensen
November, 2017

In a perfect suburban community on a perfectly manicured lawn stands Elena Richardson watching her McMansion burn to the ground. She's stunned but not shocked. She knows the fire is arson and as the book unfolds, the reader too finds out what events triggered this drastic action.

Celeste Ng, an FAW 2015 prize-winner, jumps back several months to when Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive. The time is 1997 in upscale Shaker Heights, a planned community which prides itself on stability and lack of change. Mia is an artist who values her work instead of money and who moves from place to place as the muse strikes her. They settle in a rented house owned by Elena Richardson and soon Pearl befriends the four Richardson teens. Pearl has never encountered such wealth and consumerism that's essential to the Richardsons and in turn, they have never met anyone, especially Mia, who cares so little for clothes, televisions, fancy houses and everything else they consider necessary.

Elena is first fascinated and later obsessed with digging into Mia's past. Where did this woman come from? Who is Pearl's father? Why is Mia's portrait in the local art museum? Elena can't understand Mia's mindset and can't leave her alone. Her children also are unsettled by Pearl and try to mold her to their way of life - inviting her to hang out with them, buying her clothes, and taking her to parties.

When Mia needs some grocery money, she starts working as a part-time housekeeper for the Richardsons and becomes a confidant to the children. While Mr. and Mrs. Richardson are never around, Mia is there after school to listen to their problems and offer advice. She provides a moral clash to Elena's views on life, causing "little fires everywhere."

By writing the story through various voices, the author is able to show the differing philosophies and rationales. Though very different, the characters are appealing and have good intentions. It is only when they confront another way of life that trouble occurs.

The characters, even the teenagers, are well drawn and believable. The novel's themes are skillfully woven into the story, making cryptic points without overstating the issues. It's on the best- seller list because it is so readable and assessable. This is Celeste Ng's second novel and FAW can be proud to see that she has gone from an emerging author to a polished, insightful writer.